Taking The Regional High Road

October 7, 2016

By: Craig Pollett, CEO, Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador 

The Potential Of Our Regional Government

I started this job fifteen years ago. Almost sixteen. I came to it like a zealot, believing that future was stringer, more autonomous local government. That the more we devolved authority and tools to the first order of government, the better off we would all be. It was obvious. Who else is better positioned to make important decisions about people’s lives and about the communities where they live than local politicians? 

I still believe that, but the way we need to get there is changing. Regional government, ironically, is the way we will strengthen local democracy. It took me almost decade to come to this realization. Not because I didn’t like the idea of regional government — I did — but because I thought we needed to strengthen the local system first. And ideally, that’s exactly what we would do. Unfortunately, time isn’t on our side anymore. 

The demographics of our councils are startling. Fewer and fewer people are running for municipal office. In 2013, only 45 percent of councils required am election. The remaining 55 percent settled for either all seats being acclaimed or not enough candidates coming forward. The financial capacity to do the work that needs to be done simply isn’t there for most smaller towns. The vast majority of municipalities don’t have the human resources or technical wherewithal to do the things they know their residents want. 

Let me give you an example. A council delegation from a small community came to the Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador (MNL) office one day to discuss some infrastructure projects it was hoping to get started. The discussion was moving along nicely when one council member suddenly noticed the time and said, “We’ve got to go b’ys. I’m on-call tonight.” 

I asked what his job was that would have him on-call overnight. “It’s not my job,” he said. “Everyone on council takes turns being on-call to operate the backhoe in case we have a sewer line break overnight.” 

I’ve heard stories like this before. Municipal Councillors care very deeply about their communities. Most do this work for very little or no pay at all. No one gets rich by getting elected to municipal government in Newfoundland and Labrador. They do it because they care, but they are struggling to keep their communities afloat in the face of increasingly complex regulations, increasingly expensive infrastructure, and increasingly challenging economic circumstances. The system they work in cannot hold for much lnger. Right now, we estimate that the collective invetsment needed for replacing aging drinking water infrastructure is almost $500 million; to implement new federal wastewater treatment regulations, over $400 million. 

We do not have $1 billion to do this work. There has to be a better way than hundreds of small municipalities scrambling after not enough funding. 

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So what do we need to start building stronger municipal government? We need more technical staff working for municipalities. We need better planning in municipalities. We need stronger revenue sources for municipalities. But more than that, we need people more engaged in how local decisions mar made. We need councils with the capacity to reach out to residents in new ways. We need councils with he capacity to manage the increasingly complex web of regulations and to do so in the most transparent way possible. 

There is no way 276 individual municipalities will meet these needs on their own. They need someone to take on the heavy lifting of infrastructure and planning and regulation so they can focus on the day-to-day local needs of their residents. Regional government can do that. 

And before you start getting all riled up about red tape and bureaucracy, consider this 74 percent of our municipalities have one — or fewer (!) — employees. This province is hardly sinking under the weight of massive municipal bureaucracy. Instead, we are suffering from a municipal system that cannot afford to provide the kinds of effective government services that people have come to expect in this day ad age. We suffer from too little bureaucracy!

And for those who decry the addition of “another lawyer government”, remember that we are the only province — except for Prince Edward Island, population 146,000 — that doesn’t have some form of regional administration. So far, having a regional government hasn’t spelled doom for any of the provinces with them. In fact, regional governance is the norm around the world. It’s the way the world does municipal government. 

We are the anomaly. 

Finally, let’s not forget that there are over 350 communities in this province that live outside municipal boundaries. That’s about fifty thousand people who do not contribute to the roads, bridges, water systems, and sewer systems that keep our schools, hospitals, and businesses running. They also receive snow-clearing and other road-related services from the provincial government for little or no cost. Including these communities within a regional system mean everyone pays his or her fair share. It will also mean that for the first time in their lives, fifty thousand people will have a say in how municipal government operates. 

Municipal government is important. People fought and died in wars to protect our democratic right to have a say in how our communities are run. It was wrong that we allow this fractured patchwork of local democracy to continue. 

We need an integrated. Effective system that can deliver the services residential and commercial taxpayers want and provide the good governance they need.

Municipal elections are coming in September of 2017. That is our deadline. By September of 2017, we need to know what we are going to do about regional government. Why? Because it is unlikely that enough sitting councilors will run again in 2017, and there are fewer and fewer people left to take their place. In 2009, there were fifteen municipalities with no candidates. How many will there be in 2017? 

Fear isn’t why we should do regional government though. We should do it because it will improve the lives of the people in this province. It will be a better system. Even the larger centers that are already providing high levels of service and don’t necessarily need to join a regional group will benefit. Stringer regions will mean stringer cities and urban towns. They will benefit from the increased capacity of their neighbors. 

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